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"Your message did not reach some or all of the intended recipients."

06.29.2005 | MEDIA

We've all had emails disappear somewhere in cyberspace because of problems sending or receiving. The wearisome refrain "Delivery Status Notification: Failure" has, however, an alternate application--as a judgment passed on media that seeks to effect meaningful change. Since 9/11, the amount of reform-minded journalism and commentary both committed to the written page or expelled into the electronic ether has compounded. It's hard to deny, however, that it's failed to generate significant interest on the part of the general public.

In other words, either there's a glitch in the transmission or, if the dissemination is indeed widespread, it's being filtered out. We've thus arrived at a critical juncture where the specific issue a writer addresses at any given moment is now obscured by one more overriding--that of just trying to reach the general public. Pardon the hyperbole, but this poses a threat to democracy itself.

Is it then an infertile host that's the problem, the motility of the message, or some kind of blood-borne pathogen from outside the organism? We'll first examine a donor: the mainstream press. At the risk of piling on, we'll make The New York Times--to whatever extent it's a vehicle for writers who seek to effect change--our example.

As has been amply documented, after 9/11, the tenor of the Times harmonized with a public perceived as more suspicious than ever of those who question their president. Fear of losing access to an administration with a long memory was another reason it soft-pedaled much of its adversarial reporting.

Then, when likelihood of invading Iraq loomed, the Times ignored the violation of both international law and the UN charter that it constituted. In addition, it gave reporter Judith Miller a green light to launch her campaign for enshrinement in the Janet Cooke Hall of Journalistic Infamy beside co-Times man Jason Blair. She was only too glad to accept, like a baby bird from its mother, predigested WMD tips from sources inside Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress.

The Times has also shown a tendency to postpone reporting a story until blogs and the alternate press stir up the waters and force them to face it. Meanwhile, it gives others, like the red-carpet treatment the White House granted uncredentialed Jeff Gannon, short shrift. Have these tactics facilitated the dispersal of their more praiseworthy reporting to the general public? If growth is any indicator, no. As the president and chief executive officer of The New York Times Corporation, Janet L. Robinson, said in February, the "advertising market continues to be challenging." Furthermore, "looking forward, visibility remains limited."

Maybe that explains why their editorial choices often amount to "trading favors with [the administration]," as Elliot D. Cohen, Ph.D. explains it in "Save Democracy, Shut Off Chris Matthews," on, March 9. "The Times Corporation [which already owns three CBS affiliates] was," he continues, "...a major lobbyist before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), seeking further deregulation of media ownership." Et tu, Times? Too bad expanding their horizons comes at the expense of expanding readers' horizons.

However, the Times failings--its haste to prevent its audience from viewing it as un-American, greasing the wheels for the merger-and-acquisitioning of more media outlets -- may be moot. Thanks to the hard right tarring its hull with the label "liberal," the Gray Lady may not be down. However, as the victim of a mass optical delusion that she lists left, she's barred from entry in many ports of call. There remains then no real rationale for the Times to squander opportunities to straight-shoot its stories and strengthen its base.

Speaking of compromise, there are those that exceed even the Times in the precautions they take against offending their audience and the administration. Practicing something more suited to the wheels of your car in the hands of an auto mechanic, they seek to "balance." As Richard Cohen explains in his Washington Post March 15 column, "C-SPAN's Balance of the Absurd," the cable network scheduled Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt to plug her new book on the plum publishing venue Book TV.

History on Trial is an account of the unsuccessful libel case which Holocaust denier David Irving, whose feet Dr. Lipstadt held to the fire in her earlier book, Denying the Holocaust, brought against her in Britain. In a surprise move, C-SPAN decided, in the words of producer Amy Roach, "to balance it [Lipstadt's lecture] by covering him [Irving]."

While on the surface, it might make sense to feature the plaintiff, even if he was defeated, along with the defendant, some charges are too spurious for words. In a self-defeating--petulant even--concession to those who advised them of this, C-SPAN decided to instead host a panel discussion of the book with neither party present.

Does the C-SPAN triplets' parent company, National Cable Satellite Corporation, actually believe that one of the cable television systems it charges for its services will insist on a Holocaust denier having his say? The day hasn't arrived--yet--where it profiteth even Fox News to adopt such a stance. One can understand taking under advisement pickets, phone calls, or letters. But what is it about a deluge of email, which can be drained out of an in-box with the flick of a finger, that makes grown media executives cringe?

As with the Times, caving in to pressure only alienates your audience by compromising your credibility. Besides, backing down makes you look weak in comparison to, say, Fox. In fact, its slogan, "Fair and Balanced," may have sparked the balancing craze. If the media in question were a car, it would be rumbling around not on balanced wheels, or even equally inflated tires, but on one of those replacement donut tires.

The hard right, however, far from sated by the mainstream media's policy of appeasement, also works to marginalize it. In effect, it seeks to exile it from the justified text of the national scene to the margins, where they will remain free to scrawl self-referential notes. The hard right, in other words, as explained by Hudson of the dailykos in "Framing vs. Fencing: A post-Lakoff analysis" on March 10, fences its constituents off from the opposition.

"...if frames," Hudson says, "are a window to view the world through, then fences block much of that world out--rendering the frames largely irrelevant." It's not your dueling kind of fencing ---the hard right has no truck with the thrust and parry of dialectic--and neither is it a game. In fact, to take Hudson's metaphor one step further, beyond fencing out, it fences the opposition in: to an ideological ghetto.

Besides stripping the likes of the Times of its credibility by labeling it liberal, the hard right resorts to other measures, as explained in "Tearing Down the Press" by Eric Boehlert in Salon, March 2. On February 14, Fox News host Brian Kilmeade interviewed Reese Schonfeld, one of CNN's founders, about the controversy then-CNN news president Eason Jordan sparked by commenting that US troops in Iraq targeted journalists. Schonfeld reminded Kilmeade about April 8, 2003, when, on the same day the US bombed Al-Arabiya TV, a US M1 Abrams tank sat down on a bridge a mile from the Hotel Palestine, widely known as the journalist's port in the storm. Suddenly it swung its turret around and, as if just given orders, fired on the hotel, killing two journalists.

Kilmeade's response? "That's what CNN reported."

Impugning the competition is standard operating procedure. Kilmeade, however, in casting doubt upon the actual existence of an event reported by an outlet not known for fabrication, lowered himself to a sophomore's idea of phenomenology ("What is real?"). Tarring again with the brush of liberalism, for which, of course, CNN is as much a code as the Times, he not only fenced in, but quarantined the station.

If there's a disease, however, it's the virus spread by the hard right that infects the body politic with doubts that a consensus can be reached about facts. In a weakened state, the public succumbs to its worst fears and stops trusting the mainstream media. Meanwhile, administration mouthpieces like Fox News stand ready to rush in and fill the vacuum.

While the alternate press and bloggers may match the hard right's tenacity, they can't match its funds and, consequently, its reach. In fact, much of the time the hard right doesn't even bother fencing them off because most of the public seldom strays near them. To the public, investigative reporting, especially since the black, liberal heart of 60 Minutes was laid bare by the Killian tapes controversy, is the local newsperson assigned to tracking down consumer complaints. As for the alternate press, if exposed to it, they're liable to find it treasonous. Worse, they might regard the Constitution, once explained to them, as the product of a dream-filled era when there were no terrorists to sneak through its loopholes.

However, to accuse the alternate press of preaching to the choir is to practice our own form of fencing and, as well, to project onto it one's own failure to speak out. We need only recall that the hard right's success derives from making no effort whatsoever to reach out to its opposition but, instead, devoting all its energies to stirring up its base. Should then a reporter or commentator of the alternate press reproach himself for his circumscribed audience and inability to effect major change, his real weakness is that virulent form of vanity known as grandiosity. As well, he demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of the general public.

What then makes the American public, when it comes to national and world affairs, unreceptive to all but the most blatant appeals to their emotions? Having established that the mainstream press has both neutered itself and been fenced out, and that the alternate press is off its radar screen, we'll now explore the head waters of public indifference.

At the most elemental level, the average American finds school subjects like current events or, even worse, "civics," boring. As well, our vaunted anti-intellectualism aside, who besides Americans have demonstrated such an awe-inspiring capacity to forget what they learned in school? For instance, according to a national poll conducted for Washington College, only forty-six percent of the eight-hundred adult Americans surveyed could identify the college's namesake as the commander of the Continental Army. It's true the possibility can't be discounted that schools exist that neglect to inform students that some presidents not only serve in, but lead the armed forces. More likely, despite its value as the question to a Jeopardy answer, this fact was culled and discarded like most of the tide of information that threatens to swamp us daily.

In other words, the general public is not only intimidated by national and world affairs, but doesn't perceive them as relevant to their lives. Following the news is just another specialized job in a specialized world. Furthermore, it doesn't pay.

Mercenary as it sounds, according to Ilya Somin, author of "When Ignorance Isn't Bliss: How Voter Ignorance Threatens Democracy," a policy analysis for the Cato Institute, there's some truth to that. He maintains that the statistical probability a vote can effect change doesn't justify the amount of time required to become an informed voter--that is, it's not cost-effective. Professor Somin's libertarian solution is to make it "cheaper" to stay informed by reducing the size of the government, which, in turn, will reduce the number of issues demanding the public's attention.

Meanwhile, "on the cheap" is how much of the general public prefers its news. First: They watch the local news, which has undergone major changes since the personality infusion that station management dictated a couple of decades ago. Among them is the skill with which, depending on the issue reported, a newsperson whips on and off his or her comedy-tragedy mask. Second: They read one of a new breed of dailies, like Metro AM, which, at twenty pages--there's not even room for a masthead--condenses the news to within an inch of its life.

Third: They glance at Internet headlines on their browser and pick one that strikes their fancy ("ARM vs. Fixed Rate: Which is better?"). Fourth: In a practice seldom remarked on, they switch, during commercials on other channels, to CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News and, in-media-res style, drop in on the news.

As for the national network news, instead of prolonging the stress of their day by watching it, many of those not preoccupied with preparing dinner or helping with homework yield to an understandable impulse to instead unwind with entertainment TV. No statistics are available for this, but a likely reason for older network news viewership, at least among retirees, is that they're already home. Either they find the news stimulating--or a break from the storm of emotions their news source of choice, Fox News, whips up.

Just as we begin to despair, it's instructive to recall Professor Somin's assertion there might be a rationale for political ignorance. After all, with the burgeoning complexity of issues, many don't vote for a congressperson to represent him or her, but, like a tax preparer, to unravel the issues and tell them what they're owed. What then is wrong with trusting governing to those who've trained for it like we've been educated in our jobs? Nothing, we concede. But what's so hard about understanding that between tax cuts for the rich and repeal of the estate tax, and "reform" of Social Security and the bankruptcy law, the administration is systematically stripping them of every last piece of armor with which they've girded themselves over the last century?

One can be forgiven for wondering why this assault on the general public, celebrated as the salt of the earth, doesn't go against the grain of its common sense. Perhaps because when asked to make an evaluation that falls outside its idea of the job description for a citizen, its intuition, thus conflicted, fails it.

As nutritionist-activist-journalist Gary Null explains in Who Are You Really? (Carroll & Graf, 1996), over the years he grew frustrated with much of his radio audience which, while paying his teachings lip service, failed to make healthful changes in their lives. In an attempt to understand them, he seems to have tossed psychology's Myers-Briggs personality types (derived from Jung) up in the air and watched as they fell to the floor and recombined themselves. It's worth taking a look at those who compose his principal form of frustration--the "adaptive-supportives," as he calls them.

A quick review of the type that comprises "most of the people you'll ever meet," as Dr. Null says, helps explain why you won't find them questioning "the existing paradigm," to borrow a pet phrase of his. Vouchsafed by--oh, yeah, themselves --with the sacred duty of installing and oiling the nuts and bolts of society, "They have a strong need to trust in one authority, and they feel vulnerable and threatened if an idea or person challenges that authority."

Instances in which that authority has failed them ("...they will adapt to negative forces they encounter, be it pollution in their water or toxic dumps in their backyards...") take a back seat to that need to trust him or her. Switching allegiance is not out of the question, but they need constant reminders by "...a dynamic leader or leaders [to] show them that protest and change are possible." For adaptive-supportives are not only suckers for charisma, but dependent on the kindness of strangers. In fact, they were lucky that Franklin Roosevelt, for example, was somehow spared the need to sacrifice his noblesse oblige on the altar of political ambition.

Failing the appearance of a benefactor, when a leader like the current president betrays them, adaptive-supportives are not only disinclined to switch sides, but (my observation, not Dr. Null's) they're liable to sink into cynicism. Its seldom acknowledged about the general public, but a source of its fears is sensitivity. As Dr. Null says, "...there is a delicate quality to their interactions with others. They...can be humble, sincere, and trusting." It's that same sensitive side that, once freed by two other charismatic figures, John Kennedy and Pope John XXIII, gave adaptive-supportives license to indulge in an almost decade-long public display of generosity of spirit seldom seen in them.

Since the adaptive-supportives' benefactor, like a savior, descends from above, he renders the earthen works behind which they hide themselves moot. Until his arrival, however, there remain soft spots for the alternate media and others in the opposition to probe and tunnel through. Whether messengers or infiltrators, in order to prepare the public for their secular savior's coming, they would be wise to consider the following tactics.

1. Interweave commentary with the fabric of everyday life.

This is a means to bypass political writing's capapcity to either intimidate the public as high-brow or trigger biased responses. For example, in his Sunday column in New York's Daily News, sports columnist Mike Lupica intersperses sports with remarks like: "The President has about as much support on his plan to overhaul Social Security as [New York City mayor] Bloomberg has for his West Side stadium." Lupica's one-line items don't necessarily win the reader over to his point of view. But, validated to his readers by not only the working-class paper for which he works, but the regular-guy status sports affords him, he demonstrates that questioning elected officials, an exercise foreign to many sports fans, is as venerable a pastime as baseball.

Meanwhile, columnist Bob Herbert also earned his everyman stripes by writing for The Daily News. Though since upwardly mobilized by The New York Times, he remains a straight shooter who doesn't suffer fools gladly. Thus he's uniquely equipped to be syndicated, presumably at a discount, to an outlet guaranteed to make him palatable to an audience of staggering proportions: The Pennysaver. If this sounds far-fetched, consider that he'd be the beneficiary of spillover attention from a public engaged in the most concentrated reading much of it does--searching for a bargain.

Even more than working-class newspapers, entertainment TV reinforces. Usually, however, it's our worst tendencies. For example, the almost across-the-board refusal of TV drama executives to feature stories about the Iraq war, much less acknowledge it, forms a vicious cycle.

It both reflects how the general public averts its gaze from the war and it models this defense mechanism--however unnatural--for them, thus ensuring its continuation. Though to be fair, subjecting itself to the recent hike in screen violence may be the public's way of sidling up to experiencing war. Perhaps playing on this guilt, entertainment executives have integrated torture into storylines as if the president and the attorney general had circumvented the Geneva conventions not for military intelligence, but for Hollywood's sake.

In one of the few instances in which the subject of Iraq was broached, Detective Ed Green on NBC's original Law & Order referred to the "dude that lied to us," adding, "I don't see any weapons of mass destruction, do you?" While this may seem innocuous, especially compared to the French bashing presented to children as normal on a commercial for Pop-Tarts and on Jimmy Neutron, both on Nickelodeon, it drew fire. If "liberal" Hollywood has any interest in encouraging the public to understand the implications of attacking another country, it needs to proceed with no trace of bias.

For example, if you'll excuse a foray into fan fiction, what could be more commonplace than Detective Green complaining about his job: "There's gotta be a better way to make a living."? To which partner Joe Fontana replies, "Thirty-three guys got blown up in Baghdad yesterday standing in line for your job." While the character of Fontana is drawn as nationalistic, one would be hard-pressed to draw that or the opposite conclusion from this comment--just acknowledgment of lives lost in a conflagration to which, for better or worse, we set the match.

Meanwhile, the stylish gore-porn series, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation--militaristic executive producer Bruckheimer permitting--might approach the war from an oblique angle. You can't ask for a venue more ideal than CSI to show the effects on the human body of the inexplicably legal .50 caliber sniper rifle, which shoots bullets capable of bringing down a plane that's within two thousand yards. Imagine head CSI Gil Grissom inspecting the handiwork of a Barrett 99. "Classify under the heading of overkill," he remarks. "After all," coroner Dr. Robbins responds, "you can only be so dead."

Furthermore, crime series on domestic TV compensate for their exhaustion of plot possibilities by ratcheting up the number of victims and the viciousness of the violence. Iraq, however, through which the Fertile Crescent arcs, has now become fertile ground for plots: What faction--Bath, Sunni, al Qaeda?--of what alliance pulled off which slaughter towards what end? And was the death of those Iraqi civilians killed by US forces a command decision or a soldier's or, if deemed an accident, who's to blame?

The only affront more grievous to a society than indiscriminate killing is the lack of the public's collective will to solve it. Or to put it in terms that entertainment --a field even more mercenary than the military--might understand: so many plot lines, so little time. At the very least, if only for realism's sake, depict a TV or movie character looking up from a newspaper, shaking his head, and commenting, "Tough day in Iraq." It would go a long way to stanching the wasteful flow of psychic energy that's diverted into ignoring the war.

2. Appeal to compassion for the suffering.

No, aside from natural disasters like the tsunami, not people. Caring for those less fortunate, always a tough sell, plays hardly at all these days. To much of the public, it's a potion made up of two parts the-poor-are-weak and three parts sympathy-makes-us-weak. Worse, it's preceded by its reputation for being as corrosive to authority as holy water is to a vampire.

Animals, however, are another matter (except the cow--beef and leather coats are non-negotiables). Find the right one, like the mustang, perhaps the second most American animal after the eagle, and you can ride rings around the likes of Karl Rove with it. Corporate leaseholders of public lands, which they got at a steal, complained that their cattle were forced to share forage and water with wild horses. The lawmakers they lobbied saw to it that a provision was slipped into a federal appropriations bill repealing a 1971 law that barred selling feral horses to slaughterhouses.

The sale of mustangs in lots to "kill buyers" is as much of an issue waiting for exploitation by the opposition as if a safety defect in the iconic Ford Mustang of the sixties consigned it to the compactor. In addition it's a way of reaching pro-environment Western sportsmen, normally sequestered behind the gun issue as if it were Red Brand® barbed wire.

3. Brandish physically and psychically maimed veterans like the hard right did Terri Schiavo.

While you'd think this is a no-brainer, unfortunately it's as much of a non-starter as appealing to compassion for the poor. Since the draft was ended and soldiers became a specialized class, the general public no longer feels solidarity with them. Worse, the way wounded veterans force it to face ugly truths about Iraq is liable to elicit that ignoble refrain you never want to utter in front of a soldier's loved ones: "He volunteered, didn't he?"

However, just like extending tours of duty and calling up reserves constitutes a backdoor draft, the issue of war casualties can be accessed through the backdoor of the military family. In Shake Hands with the Devil (Carroll & Graf, 2004), Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire of Rwanda fame says, "The demands of single parenthood, loneliness and fatigue, and the visual and audio impact of twenty-four-hour news reporting from the zones of conflict where loved ones have been sent create stress levels... that simply go off the chart. Our families live the missions with us, and they suffer similar trauma, before, during and after."

Cover families shipping Kevlar vests, lobbying for Humvee armor, and, should it come to that, advocating for adequate and affordable VA treatment for their wounded child. Skip, however, their expressions of frustration with the administration and Pentagon. Besides identifying with those who sacrifice without complaining, the adaptive-supportive may draw the conclusion that the Defense Department is like an inept supervisor at work who fails to requisition the proper tools for a job and, when the inevitable job-related injury occurs, neglects to file the proper papers.

4. Super-size Professor George Lakoff.

Ubiquitous before the election, the object of a mild backlash since, has his time passed? Hardly--his framing devices just need pumping up.

For example, take civil liberties--please. Anything that smacks of the American Civil Liberties Union, even more maligned by the hard right than the UN, is the kiss of death. Instead, frame civil liberties as what it actually is--freedom. By wresting this term from an administration holding it hostage, freedom would thus be granted its freedom. As well, the hard right, which had been using framing not "to encase or border," but, like an evil twin, "to incriminate" or set up for a fall, is forced to hand over civil liberties too.

Another effective use of a frame is to take programming--like the fear of terror the administration instills in us--and vanquish it with a program. While the former rolls the public back on its heels, the latter holds within it the power to mobilize. In fact, a program need not even be one of benefits, but one of sacrifice. It just requires framing with the right metaphor--one most likely to reverberate with a fear-debased public: that of a weapon.

For example, in a recent report, "Saving Oil in a Hurry: Measures for Rapid Demand Restraint in Transport," the International Energy Agency calls for driving only on designated days. Almost everyone, regardless of political persuasion, grasps the importance of freeing us from dependence on foreign oil. As well, some among us understand the dangers of inflicting ourselves on oil-producing countries, whether through building military bases or actually invading. But once it's made clear we're either financing countries that export terror or inciting terror with our presence, it can then be demonstrated that making the choice to spurn burning through our oil reserves is a weapon against terrorism.

The general public, at its best ready to adapt and support when called upon, might surprise itself and embrace rationing. Not only that, but the inevitable attempt by the rich to dodge it by allotting a different car to each designated day would highlight the difference between them and the rest of us. Thus might the public's tendency to blame down rather than up diminish.

Another weapon available to us is dual-use--both as a defense against economic threats like China and as a rocket launching us to prosperity. That, of course, is funding for technology. Unfortunately, as Benjamin Wallace-Wells sums up in the subtitle to his March Washington Monthly piece, "Off Track": "America's economy is losing its competitive edge and Washington hasn't noticed."

While it's commonly believed that the "culture of life" is the spring feeding the administration's zealotry, it's actually just the compulsion to free up capital for investment. Thus the administration has proved all too willing to cut funding for science research in twenty-one of twenty-four areas, including $100 million from the National Science Foundation. The Times's Thomas Friedman, though buoyant as a Boy Scout as ever about globalization, has also come in handy sounding the alarm on this shortfall.

It seems that while we've immersed ourselves in self-imposed suspended animation, Europe and Asia have jumped to the fore in broadband, Toyota has leased its hybrid auto technology to Ford, and South Korea has become the world leader in designing video games. Where will it end? Will the Japanese infiltrate American baseball and out-train, out-hustle, and out-perform us? What's that? They have?

Whether it's China, India, or the US, whichever country takes the lead in developing alternate fuels and energy-efficient technology will become the world's most stable economy. Light a fire under American youth by funding research into these areas and watch it seize science like its predecessors did aeronautics in the sixties.

Characterizing funding for technology as both a means of keeping the competition at bay and as an ignition key for the economy provides the alternate media with a much-needed leg-up. Beyond that, it can make manifest how lack of that funding exposes the White House for what it is: a house of un-American activities entirely unto itself. In other words, by turning its back on science research, the administration deprives Americans of a chance to demonstrate individual initiative--cherry number one. Next, it discourages Edisonian ingenuity--cherry number two. Finally, it neglects the good old American can-do spirit and leaves it to rot on the vine--jackpot!

Plus, the issue comes equipped with a back-up system. Lost in the rush to gut bankruptcy law was a raison d'être for its original existence: to lessen the repercussions for the entrepreneur whose attempt to start a new business, with its attendant job creation, didn't succeed. This can be likened to the administration's failure to encourage enterprise in science, should it, if taken to task, attempt to spin research cuts in its favor.

In other words, the administration has appropriated bankruptcy unto themselves--the moral kind. Meanwhile, reform-minded media has been provided with the most effective means yet to reach the general public. It's finally the proud possessor of what the hard-right media prides itself on--its own "narrative."

This article first appeared in Online Journal.

About the Author
Russ Wellen is an editor at Freezerbox who specializes in foreign affairs and nuclear deproliferation.
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